The Importance of Monitoring Body Condition (Agnes Winter)
Agnes Winter, MRVCS Specialist in Sheep Health & Production
One of the most important parts of successful sheep keeping is making sure that animals are in the correct body condition for the time of year and stage of production. Whilst it is fairly easy to tell from a distance whether a sheep is fat or thin for a brief time after shearing, as the fleece grows it is not possible to be accurate by just looking. In fact, serious misjudgements can be made by thinking that sheep look in good condition, particularly during winter when grass is in short supply or of poor quality, and crucially during the later stages of pregnancy.
It is essential to get 'hands on' to assess the true condition. This is done by regular body condition scoring which has been widely described, but essentially you are assessing whether a sheep is fat, fit or thin by feeling with your hand over the lumbar transverse processes of the spine (the loin area). You can then assess how easily the bones coming out from each side of the spine can be felt:
|–||If they can be felt individually and quite easily the sheep is lean or perhaps even very thin|
|–||If the ends of the bones can be felt but are rounded and individual bones cannot be easily detected, the sheep is probably in a fit condition|
|–||On the other hand, if the ends of the bones cannot be felt, even with firm pressure, the sheep is probably too fat|
Being too thin or too fat in late pregnancy can lead to metabolic problems, particularly pregnancy toxaemia (twin lamb disease) which is often problematic to treat and may lead to loss of ewe and lambs. It is very difficult to get condition back onto a ewe in the last half of pregnancy as she simply cannot eat enough to supply her own energy needs and the demands of the growing lambs.
Regular handling to assess condition throughout pregnancy allows any unexpected loss of body reserves to be detected and corrected quickly before lasting harm is done. Each time sheep are gathered for any reason put your hand on the loin just to check. If your sheep are quiet and used to your presence you may be able to check as you walk among them or as you are feeding them. Don't leave it until lambing time is just round the corner – it may be too late!
For further health & welfare information during pregnancy, see 'The Breeding Flock', programme 3 in the DVD series 'Sheep on Your Smallholding'.